Sunday, April 29, 2007

Lullaby update

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

(sung to the tune of Greensleeves)

It all works.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Just what this World Cup needed...

A 38-over-a-side final. From Cricinfo's commentary,

"38 Overs? How embarrassing," spits Joseph Kirk from France. "Can you imagine the football World Cup being cut to 70 minutes? A baseball World Series game being reduced to six innings? A rugby World Cup game played in one half?"

Well, no, but this is a fitting ending to the worst World Cup ever. Just when it looked like being an interesting game between the world's two best (if not two top-ranked) sides. (As I type, Australia are 63/0 in the 12th over and are treating it as a Twenty20 match, which it may well get reduced to if there are further rains.)

I mean, they do have a reserve day! Why can't they play 50 overs a side (it used to be 60 a side, back in the 1970s) when there's a whole day to go?

Speaking of the football World Cup, it had 32 teams and took a month. The cricket one had 16 teams and has taken nearly two months. That's the comparison Malcolm Speed should make, not the one with the last cricket world cup (and even then, he should note that this World Cup, with three fewer matches, is nevertheless a week longer).

Speed, with his usual astuteness, would point out that getting it done in a month would mean some group games would have to be played in parallel. (The football cup had up to 3 games a day, but since it's a shorter game, they didn't need to be played simultaneously.) So what? So, he would say, the TV companies would object. But would it really reduce TV viewership? More likely it would improve viewership, by sustaining interest better.

Update - I went to bed before the end, so missed the farce that it ended in. No, I can't imagine the football World Cup -- or any other international sporting event -- ending in darkness and officials running back and forth contradicting one another on what to do, and the players finally playing out a tame few minutes to "get it over with".

Couldn't the ICC have donated a tiny fraction of its vast revenues from this World Cup to install floodlights at Barbados, if not the other venues?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Wagner wouldn't be flattered

I've been putting my 4-month-old to sleep by humming "The ride of the Valkyries" to him. It works well.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Green is dirty?

This sort of thing is what gives environmentalism a bad name.
Singer Sheryl Crow has said a ban on using too much toilet paper should be introduced to help the environment.

Crow has suggested using "only one square per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where two to three could be required".

Like many in this part of the world, I consider toilet paper an abomination -- you don't use paper to clean any other part of the body, so why use it on the dirtiest orifice of all? So I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of reducing its use: may I suggest switching to a cleaner alternative, for example -- oh, I don't know -- water, maybe?

If one must use toilet paper, I suppose using just one square would have some benefits: for example, dissuading gropers on Delhi's buses. And maybe it will save a few trees too. I just don't see how it would help one's personal hygiene.

The article continues:
Crow has also commented on her website about how she thinks paper napkins "represent the height of wastefulness".

She has designed a clothing line with what she calls a "dining sleeve".

The sleeve is detachable and can be replaced with another "dining sleeve" after the diner has used it to wipe his or her mouth.

Again, most restaurants in India would offer a nicer alternative -- a fingerbowl, or failing that (or "for those pesky occasions where two to three could be required"), a sink. And many people carry a useful device called a handkerchief, meant for just such occasions.

Update: Crow's full article is here, and I admit her tongue seems to have been in her cheek (as she herself protests).

Friday, April 20, 2007

The fake folk blues

"... that peculiar hard core [of folk song lovers] who seem to equate authenticity with artistic merit and illiteracy with charm." -- Tom Lehrer

Today I came across two interesting links on Arts and Letters Daily. The first is a review by Adam Gopnik of a biography of Kingsley Amis, who wrote the brilliant "Lucky Jim" and some execrable later books. It talks of Lucky Jim's "bracing contempt for culture and higher education" and cultural pretences; but continues:
Hating pretentiousness is a bracing sentiment in "Lucky Jim," but it jumps easily to the philistinism of "Pseuds Corner" in Private Eye, where not just babies but whole generations of first-borns get tossed out with the bathwater. It is a very good thing to have a built-in bullshit detector, but a bad thing when the bullshit detector crowds out the rest of your brain; that's why they call it being narrow-minded. You quickly reach the stage where anything ambitious, complicated, or merely foreign gets spat on along with the things that are genuinely phony. Pretense and ambition are different words for the same thing, and a writing without pretense pretty soon becomes a literature without ambitions, content to congratulate itself on its own insularity. Blimpishness is not a step away; it is all you have left.

The second link is a review of a book by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, "Faking it: the quest for authenticity in popular music", and connects directly -- especially in the sections on the folk blues -- with the Tom Lehrer quote above, and indirectly with the Amis article.

But let me preface with why I found it interesting. I find the blues fascinating as a style in jazz and in rock. Whether it's Louis Armstrong singing "Basin Street blues", or the Modern Jazz Quartet playing "Willow weep for me", or the Allmans playing "Statesboro blues", it's all up there with some of the most amazing music I've ever heard. But when a "peculiar hard core" of people say "the blues", they don't mean these people. They mean a particular subcategory of musicians, mainly from the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s and 1940s -- people such as Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson -- and their successors into the electric blues era of the 1950s, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B B King, Willie Dixon and others.

Some of the electric blues is fun, in the way rock and roll is fun. But it gets way too repetitive for my tastes. And as for the acoustic blues -- not only can't these people hold a tune (nor could the electric guys), they can't even keep time! This is music?

It was especially strange to me since the blues had been clearly defined as a genre since at least the early 1900s, and people like Bessie Smith had made masterly recordings of blues songs by the 1920s. (These recordings are still available.) Why the regression, then, into a crude "delta blues" in the 1930s?

Messrs Barker and Taylor have the answer, and it stunned me. Here are some quotes from the review.
Leadbelly, Barker and Taylor reveal, was by necessity a master of "faking it", a sophisticated musician of cosmopolitan taste limited to a repertoire of "Negro" songs and told by his manager to perform in prison garb. That manager was John Lomax, one of the early 20th-century giants of what has come to be known as "roots music". "The music that was, for Lomax, the most authentic," write the authors, "the most black, the most free from 'white influence', was the most primitive." That doesn't mean Leadbelly was primitive, only that Lomax and, decades later, Cobain decided to believe that he was, the better to break the bonds of artificiality they felt modernity and celebrity imposed. Leadbelly was a tool. This shifty truth comes to us by way not of postmodernism, but of old-timey Marxist analysis. In 1937, the novelist Richard Wright, profiling Leadbelly for the Daily Worker, declared his coerced performances "one of the greatest cultural swindles in history".

But that's not quite right, either. Wright recognised Lomax's manipulation of Leadbelly (who later successfully sued Lomax), but he assumed there was a genuine Leadbelly behind the music, a real black expression minstrel-ised by the white man. In fact, many of Leadbelly's songs came from white folks, who'd learned them from black musicians, who'd composed them with African inflections as reinterpreted by white musicians eager to add "floating" rhythms to the marching beat of Scots-Irish reels. The strongest argument of Faking It is for the endless "miscegenation" of music. Great popular music is always a collage of cultures, while the quest for authenticity all too often functions as a means of policing racial boundaries.

Jazz is a collage of cultures that emerged as a coherent style in the 1910s, and as a respectable art form in the 1920s. Jazz musicians took the blues well beyond the crude 3-chord format it started with: particularly with Charlie Parker and others in the bebop era, the standard 12 bars of a blues "chorus" became a maze of substitutions on those basic 3 chords.

Meanwhile, the "folk blues" actually regressed on what Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith had already achieved. The Delta blues, it seems, were a mistaken step backwards in the quest for "authenticity". And who were responsible? Not the musicians: it was the record companies, the same people who are responsible for Britney Spears today. And it was marketed to people whose finely tuned "bullshit detectors" (to use Gopnik's phrase) steered them away from the pretentiousness of "serious" twentieth-century music, and into quite another form of bullshit.

The review continues:
Consider the case of Mississippi John Hurt, the subject of the book's longest and most powerful essay. First, there's his name: Mississippi was an add-on from the record company. Then there's his reputation as a patriarch of the Delta blues: Hurt wasn't from the Mississippi Delta and he insisted he wasn't a blues musician. And then there is the problem of his blackness, thought by the white fans who rediscovered him in the 1960s to be pure and profound ("Uncle Remus come to life," write the authors). When Hurt was "discovered" the first time, he was performing for black and white audiences backed by a white fiddler and a white guitar player who also happened to be the local sheriff. He recorded blues because the record company insisted he do so. Meanwhile, Jimmie Rodgers, a white musician who happened to be a bluesman, recorded what came to be known as "country" music because the blues were reserved by the market for black men. One more twist: when Harry Smith included two of Hurt's songs on his great Smithsonian Folk Anthology, most listeners mistook the black musician for a white hillbilly.

The term "folk" itself presents more problems. Until 1949, country music was simply "folk", as was much "black" music. Racism was the centrifuge that separated them...

Fascinating stuff. I think I'll buy the book (which also apparently has caustic comments on the authenticity of contemporary musicians, from John Lennon to Nirvana).

(PS - That's post number 100.)

Addendum: The second review, and my review of the review, may give the impression that the folk blues musicians were all sophisticated musicians with wide interests and influences who got pigeonholed by John Lomax. This may have been true of Leadbelly and John Hurt, and not true of others like Robert Johnson. That is to say, there really was a "Mississippi Delta blues" style in the 1930s, which should have remained in that place and that decade, but was pushed by the record companies and later picked up by aspiring rockers; and because it existed, black musicians like Leadbelly were straitjacketed into it, while whites like Jimmie Rodgers were forcibly labelled into other styles.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

University violence at home

These weren't deranged students like the one at Virginia Tech. They were ABVP activists (ABVP, of course, being the student wing of the rabid right BJP/VHP/RSS family) and knew what they were doing. 6 physics teachers were beaten up at Warangal on Tuesday, because they failed 14 of 49 students in the examinations.

According to an email I received from a colleague:
Two of the people mentioned, Ramakanth and Gangadhar Reddy are personally known to many of us. They are sincere and committed condensed matter physicists and teachers. They have worked hard under the difficult conditions that prevail in a state university to build up the physics department there. Ramakanth is a senior professor (more than 60 years old), well respected, both locally and by the condensed matter community in the rest of India. Their academic integrity is unquestionable.

Of course, even if their integrity were questionable, mob violence is not the answer. And this is not the first time the ABVP has assaulted teachers: they murdered a professor in Ujjain not long ago.

The events at Virginia Tech have thrust the spotlight on university violence. But at home, we seem to take it for granted. A search on Google News reveals a grand total of four news items to mention Kakatiya University, of which one is an unrelated story.

Horror and empathy

Where there is no imagination there is no horror. -- Sherlock Holmes

More details are emerging from the Virginia Tech horror. It seems that, following earlier complaints and suspicions that he may be suicidal, the killer had voluntarily gone to the Police Department, who referred him to an off-campus psychiatric institution; but he was not determined to be dangerous (though he was mentally ill) and it is not known whether there was follow-up counselling.

He was not the only student on campuses around the world to face problems. The_Girl_From_Ipanema has a heart-warming post about her friend V who was pulled from the brink by the timely intervention of a good doctor. But many students aren't so lucky. Several commit suicide (on top campuses, in the US and in India, it could be one a year; in my six years at graduate school were at least three suicides that I remember, and one thankfully unsuccessful attempt). But somehow a suicide doesn't capture world headlines the way a massacre of 32 others does.

Why are we horrified by Virginia Tech? One reason is that we can relate to the students, imagine their lives, put ourselves in their shoes: many of us have been on US campuses, or know young people who study there. In fact, two of the victims were Indian: one a professor from a very modest rural background, whose parents and brother had never even visited the US in his lifetime and are making their first trip to administer his last rites; and another a young student, like so many others we know, extinguished at the threshold of her life. I wonder whether a massacre in Peru or Poland, countries not much visited by Indian students, would command so much attention. Cenk Uygur (who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers) points out that many Virginia Techs happen in Iraq every day, and we somehow remain unmoved.

So part of our horror comes from how close we feel to the victims. But why aren't we horrified by the number of suicides on campuses? Those victims are people like us, too. According to some estimates, there are about 1,100 suicides on US college campuses every year. That's over 30 times the Virginia Tech toll. I don't know the numbers in India, but I suspect they're pretty high; and they're even higher in our schools -- the papers regularly report children committing suicide as a result of being pressurised by parents or chastised by teachers, or for even more avoidable reasons; but such news is confined to the city pages and does not make national, far less international, headlines. Why don't these things occupy our news-space and our attention?

Is it that we can't relate to the depressed and unstable? If so, why not? Many of us have known depression and almost all of us know people who are depressed.

If we could empathise better with those that need help, would we be able to prevent future massacres like the one at Virginia Tech, as well as some of the thousands of annual suicides that dwarf the Virginia Tech toll?

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic (attributed to Stalin)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Road rules aren't for shiny police cars

Some time back I wrote:
Yesterday, I saw policemen pulling up motorists in the wrong lane (seeking to go straight but standing in the left lane, which at that point is divided from the straight lane) and making them turn left instead. The resulting detour would certainly have cost them half an hour, given the jam at that junction, which would probably have hurt them more than a fine. I applaud the idea.

Today we were at the above intersection (the Thiruvanmiyur intersection on Lattice Bridge Road, Chennai), waiting to go straight, and this is what we saw:

The row of stones in the middle is the divider I was talking about, and the brightly lit-up car ahead to the left of the divider is a police car (a white Hyundai Accent with brilliant tail lights and flashing red and blue lights on the roof), waiting to go straight -- that is, doing the exact same thing that the police were pulling up other cars for the other day. (There was a considerable queue in the straight lane, so the police car took the left lane to beat the queue. The other cars you see in the left lane are, in fact, turning left.)

Perhaps he was pursuing dangerous criminals -- or perhaps not. He waited patiently at the light, went straight when it turned green, and turned into a side road passing through a quiet, mainly residential area. We were taking the same route and ended up close behind. There were several people inside, who did not seem to be police officers. The space below the rear window was filled with what appeared to be shopping bags. After a while, the car turned off into a side road, so we don't know where he was headed; but it looked very much like a confirming instance of several recent reports that these shiny new cars (gifted to the police by Hyundai Motors some months ago) aren't being used for their intended purpose. And it annoys me when police drivers don't obey their own traffic rules.

In case someone with an interest is reading this: the car was TN01-G-3540 and the time was about 19:25, today, April 18. But I doubt the incident was an aberration.

Second amendment

Well, the blood is hardly dry at Virginia Tech, but the gun nuts are out in full force, trying to strike pre-emptively. Paul Craig Roberts claims that if guns are banned, knife crime will increase (but when did you last hear of 30+ people massacred by a knife-wielder?) and that England is "discovering the truth" of the claim that "when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns" -- ignoring the fact that violent crime in the UK is negligible by US standards and the British police are (mostly) unarmed to this day. Matthew Clarke says blithely that if the other students had been armed too, the massacre wouldn't have happened.

Bush has weighed in via his spokesperson: he defends the right to bear arms, but there's a caveat.

"And certainly bringing a gun into a school dormitory and shooting ... obviously that would be against the law and something that someone should be held accountable for," Perino added.

It's against the law. Who'd have imagined that? And who will be held accountable? The shooter is dead.

Cenk Uygur has a good post on the subject, with a title that someone should spraypaint on the NRA headquarters: "Guns don't kill people, bullets do."

Anyway, I have a much more basic question. All this noise about the right to keep and bear arms comes from the Second Amendment to the US constitution. But here's what it actually says:

A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Where is the "well-regulated militia" in all of this? Even if the people have the right to bear arms, where does the Amendment say that they have the right to buy them at a drugstore, with not even a cursory background check, let alone licensing? Even the most liberal interpretation I can make of the Second Amendment does not lead to that: in fact it explicitly refers to the necessity of the militia being "well-regulated". Americans have the right to keep and drive cars, but there is still a process involved. Surely regulation should be far more stringent for guns.

And the amendment doesn't say "guns", it says "arms". What about hand-held rocket-launchers, as Cenk Uygur asks? What about nuclear bombs? When people talk about arms, these days they generally don't mean handguns. If the Second Amendment really gives an unregulated right to arms, do Americans have the right to keep weapons of mass destruction at home?

Friday, April 13, 2007

I'd rather eat a mango than ride a Harley

One of the dumber ad-lines I've seen was this sticker: "I'd rather push a Harley than ride a Honda." It conjured this mental image of a fat, hairy 60-year-old pushing his lonely Harley on the highway as the Hondas whiz past him.

I've always wondered, also, why mangoes in the US are so crummy. They tend to come from South America or Africa, but whatever their provenance, they're all the same -- big, green-red skin, hard yellow-white flesh, and quite tasteless. And they cost two dollars apiece.

Well, apparently we're doing a deal with the US. They get our mangoes, and we get their Harleys. We've even relaxed emission norms for the Harleys, to Euro III (other bikes must satisfy Euro IV).

I suppose it's a win for producers -- a mango farmer would rather export his produce than see it rot in a glutted market -- but as a consumer, it leaves me a bit dissatisfied. I mean, we already have Hondas. And they don't need to be pushed.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Those cheap Iranians

I wish I'd seen this article in The Onion, rather than on a serious news site.

The goody bags given to the released sailors as they left Iran contained a "load of junk", sailor Arthur Batchelor has complained.

The disgruntled 20-year-old has revealed how the Iranians took his iPod - a gift from his girlfriend - and gave him a "tacky suit" and a gift bag in return.

Inside the patterned bags were CDs, books, Persian handicrafts and toffees containing pistachios - an Iranian speciality...

...he was "still waiting" to get back his treasured iPod, which had on it a song that was playing when he first met his girlfriend.

Hm. If the girl gifted the iPod to him, how was the song playing on it when he first met her? Or was it playing elsewhere? When these people sold their stories to the media, why didn't they think of asking for new iPods and new songs to play on them?

Perhaps the CIA can take some clues from this episode on how to torture Iraqi prisoners, getting them to divulge all in two weeks. Just take away their iPods. And hope that the prisoners have learned something of British fortitude.

The episode brings a whole new meaning to the phrase widely used of English cricketers, "whingeing Poms". And David Cox is not happy.

No need to bring out the electrodes. These were men at arms who would vomit with terror at the sound of a gun being cocked.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The battle for hearts and minds

In one corner, the leader of the free world has Guantanamo Bay, where 385 men (allegedly enemy combatants, but there's no evidence required) have been held, without bail and without habeas corpus, over the past five years, and only ten have been charged with anything.

In the other corner, the leader of the axis of evil arrests 15 trespassing British sailors, keeps them for two weeks, and releases them in a "gesture of goodwill". During their captivity, the British media are apoplectic at the sole woman being shown in pictures wearing a headscarf. The rest of the world wonders what the fuss is about. The released sailors speak of psychological torture but are vague on details; videos show them playing ping-pong and chess. The situation is lampooned by everyone from Terry Jones ("It is a disgrace. We would never dream of treating captives like this - allowing them to smoke cigarettes, for example, even though it has been proven that smoking kills.") to Jon Stewart ("they were subjected to all kinds of horrors... forced to wear un-matching tracksuits.").

Yes, it's that easy now to score propaganda points against the US and UK. Ahmadinejad can do it. You can too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

"You don't run for second"

From AP:

Barack Obama isn't interested in running for vice president... "No, you don't run for second," Obama said. "I don't believe in that."

I wonder what he doesn't believe. Does he believe that there should not be a vice president? Or that there should be one, but nobody should run for it? Or that he shouldn't run for it -- it should be left to inferior creatures like Dick Cheney?

Monday, April 09, 2007

One line says it all

From this article about four men in Texas, who'd been wrongfully imprisoned for 25 years, being freed on DNA evidence exonerating them:

"The biggest tragedy when the wrong person goes behind bars is that the right person got away with it," said state Sen. Rodney Ellis.

And I'm sure the senator is not alone in that sentiment. To an American politician, it is more important to punish the guilty than to protect the innocent.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Here comes sunshine

I was leafing through Clinton Heylin's "Behind the shades", a biography of Bob Dylan today. It seemed pretty dull, for the most part. But the chapter on Dylan and the Grateful Dead was lively. Mr Heylin clearly doesn't like the Dead: he writes, of their (admittedly disappointing) collaboration in the late 1980s:

'Neither of the Dead's drummers played the backbeat on which Dylan so heavily relied; they were as sloppy in their beginnings as the man himself, rarely warming up from a slow shuffle; they didn't listen to the singer, let alone respond to him; and if they had ever been able to carry a tune in a bucket, their bucket had now got a hole in it.... the crude insensitivity of their playing [songs like "Desolation row" and "It's all over now, baby blue"] should have provided ample evidence of the pall the Dead can cast over any song... '

And, later, he writes:

'[Dylan's version of Peggy-O] had been clearly modeled on its gang rape by the Grateful Dead in recent years. Indeed, Dylan seems to have become surprisingly smitten by the attempts of Garcia and lyricist Robert Hunter to write ina traditional style, interchanging "Black Muddy River", "Deal" and "Friend of the Devil" with genuine articles like "Delia" and "Pretty Peggy-O"...'

What an absolutely awful band the Grateful Dead seem to have been. One wonders how they managed to attract such a huge and loyal fan following. They must have been quite the masters of fooling the audience.

And it wasn't merely the audience they conned, it was musicians. And not just Dylan. They got jazz musicians of the calibre of Branford Marsalis, Ornette Coleman and David Murray, and rock musicians like Bruce Hornsby, to play with them. And the Dead themselves guested extensively on others' recordings. Jerry Garcia also did some fine bluegrass recordings with projects such as "Old and in the way", which featured, among others, one of the finest bluegrass fiddlers ever, Vassar Clements. Bassist Phil Lesh has an ever-growing list of "friends" that he plays with; the most high-profile recent example is probably John Scofield. Drummer Mickey Hart has worked on many high-profile percussion projects, with guests from Zakir Hussein to Babatunde Olatunji.

It's a pity all these renowned musicians didn't use the courage of their convictions to denounce the sham that the Dead were, as Mr Heylin bravely does.

Or maybe Mr Heylin was missing something.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

TimesJobs and other Monstrosities

Lately my wife has been getting mail from TimesJobs and Monster India, based on her profile on those sites. The trouble is, she never placed those profiles there.

The first question was, are these really from TimesJobs and Monster? The first thing one does to find out is to check the headers. Unfortunately these mails were to her hotmail account (and fortunately she doesn't use that account much any more). And there seems to be no way to see the email headers in hotmail. Nor are the headers preserved if you forward the mails somewhere else. Thanks so much, Microsoft. No doubt this stems from your well-known concern for the naive user who may get confused by such options. It's the same touching solicitude that you exhibited when you decided to hide filename extensions in Windows, thus allowing viruses to name themselves britney.jpg.exe and appear to be harmless pictures. Or allowed ActiveX to install spyware without confusing the user with confirmation dialogues, so that, by some reports, 89 percent of the world's PCs are infested with spyware. But I digress.

So that failed. Next question, if these mails really are from TimesJobs and Monster, why was there no verification mail? If I register for any service whatever on the net, I thought it's standard practice that I should receive a mail asking me for confirmation ("click this link to confirm" or "type this keyword into this webpage to confirm"). That way, someone cannot create a fraudulent account in my name, without my co-operation. Surely two leading Indian jobs sites (one of which is a branch of a multinational) would take that elementary precaution?

They don't.

I created two bogus accounts, with fictitious names and an actual email address (one that I reserve for spam), one on each site. And there was no confirmatory mail. Both TimesJobs and Monster promptly sent me acknowledgements promising me that I would soon start getting spammed mercilessly by them. And I can't find a "delete account" or "delete profile" button on either site. The profiles are apparently there forever.

There must be a lawsuit lurking in this somewhere, biding its time.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Audiophile humour

I take my music systems somewhat seriously. The average boombox isn't for me, and though I was initially impressed with my first "serious" system -- a pair of Bose bookshelf speakers coupled to a Kenwood amp, which fitted my budget then, and accompanied me for four years abroad -- I quickly realised that there is better stuff than Bose at lower prices. I gave away that system before returning to India, and resolved to spend a chunk of my savings on a good system. On moving to Chennai, I spent a few evenings at Pro Musicals' listening room, where the affable Sudhin Prabhakar allowed me to listen to various high-quality speakers and amps; I ended up with a pair of Wharfedale floor-standing speakers and a Rotel amp, which cost me a total of about Rs 45000 (US$ 1000).

To an audiophile, this would be about the lowest of the low-end of acceptable gear (Bose is not acceptable, even if more expensive), but I'm happy. Audiophiles tend to witter on about linearity of response, crossover, and whatnot. Most of the music I listen to was recorded in the 1950s or earlier, or in concert, on rather dodgy equipment; I don't expect any music system to make it sound like "being there". On more recent, high-quality recordings, I really can't tell the difference from a live instrument, and can't see myself spending ten times the amount on "serious" audiophile gear. But I don't claim to have golden ears. Many people tell me they can't distinguish the Wharfedales from an average Sony boombox, costing a tenth as much -- that's good for them. And many audiophiles claim they can tell the difference from a system costing ten times as much; I don't doubt it.

Unfortunately, audiophilia is not always accompanied by sound knowledge of science and engineering; and the human mind is very impressionable. This gives audio manufacturers freedom to charge extra for ridiculous products. The most common are:

  • High-stability, jitter-proof CD players: Apparently, many people think CD players, like LP turntables, need to be balanced delicately, rotate at a constant speed, and so on. Digital electronics is a mystery to them. So of course the manufacturers address that market.
  • Cables: Apparently things like "skin effect", capacitance/inductance effects, and so on can affect the quality of the audio that your speaker cables deliver to the speakers, so you should pay several hundred dollars per metre of audiophile cable that takes care of these things. Yes, these effects exist, but none of them operate close to audible frequency ranges. But that then leads to
  • Frequency response: even though the human ear can't hear above 20 kHz, apparently it's good for your amp or speakers to be able to reproduce much greater frequencies. It mysteriously affects the audio that you do hear. Similarly, the fact that CDs sample at 44.1 kHz, and therefore are limited to 22.05 kHz frequencies, means they're bad. Nyquist's theorem is irrelevant, as is the fact that earlier technologies -- LPs, tapes -- don't have a prayer of approaching such frequencies.

There are many, many more such audiophile myths. Here is an amusing discussion. Here is another.

And finally, here is a hugely entertaining list of actual voodoo-audio products that people, presumably, have been known to spend money on.

If you plan to spend serious money on an audio system, be sure to read those links before talking to a salesman.